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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 24, 2012

A modern classic

West Bay Opera presents a remarkable update of 'Don Giovanni'

by Kevin Kirby

With its new production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," set in contemporary America, West Bay Opera has achieved something remarkable: an updating of a classic that not only emphasizes the timeless appeal of the story, but also leads us to think about the characters and their actions in new ways.

Let's begin by stipulating that, musically, the production is exceptionally strong. Under the baton of Michel Singher, the orchestra is lively and polished. Singher's tempi are sensitive to the needs of the vocalists, yet brisk enough to keep the opera's running time, with intermission, to a manageable three and a quarter hours. The acoustics of the Lucie Stern Theatre serve the singers well — the vocals are never overpowered by the orchestra — though at times (especially during the overture) the sound from the orchestra pit is somewhat muffled.

"Don Giovanni," with Mozart's multi-hued score and an exemplary libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, may provide relatively little meat for the chorus. But for the leads there are plenty of toothsome arias and savory recitatives.

While all of the leads sing their roles with technical mastery and apparent ease, what is even more impressive — and, for the success of this production, more important — is that all of them act the roles so well. By transplanting the tale to a modern, urban, East Coast neighborhood, stage director David Cox forces the performers to approach the characters not just as iconic operatic types (the silver-tongued seducer, the long-suffering servant, et al.) but as real, contemporary, flesh-and-blood people.

The modern Giovanni (baritone Daniel Cilli) is a hedonistic trust-fund baby slumming it in a working-class neighborhood as he searches for his next sexual conquest. The flamboyant style that is often associated with the role would seem ludicrous in this context. Instead, Cilli radiates a contemptuous entitlement. We believe, as he does, that his wealth renders him untouchable. Cilli has a pleasant and refreshingly natural voice, and his serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra" (in which he accompanies himself on the mandolin) is particularly memorable.

Adam Paul Lau's Leporello is less a servant than a one-man entourage, a hanger-on who watches Giovanni's back and provides a bit of street cred. Lau has good comic instincts and a resonant bass voice. He wisely avoids playing Leporello as a clown, delivering his arias with a wry smirk and keeping the character physically grounded with a sort of hip-hop slouch. If there's any problem with Lau's performance, it's that he occasionally overpowers Cilli vocally.

Soprano Christina Major makes her West Bay debut as Anna, with Jonathan Smucker as her fiance, Ottavio. Both have strikingly beautiful voices, and they make a believable couple. In Cox's 21st-century take, Ottavio is a police detective. When Anna's father (the Commandatore, played by John Bischoff) dies at Giovanni's hand while trying to protect his daughter's honor, Smucker stalks onto the scene with uniformed cops and EMTs in tow, his black topcoat and the set of his jaw bringing to mind the no-nonsense hero of a police procedural. His lyric tenor shines on the arias "Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro," providing an interesting contrast to the hard-edged police persona.

Soprano Liisa Dávila is Elvira, the jilted (and, in this production, pregnant) former lover who has come looking for Giovanni. Davila handles the character's emotional flip-flops well: swearing revenge one moment and, the next, imagining herself capable of reforming the unrepentant playboy. Despite the flip-flopping, Davila's Elvira is a strong woman, determined to keep others from repeating her mistakes.

Finally, there are Zerlina (mezzo Kristen Choi) and Masetto (bass Carlos Aguilar), a young couple celebrating their impending marriage. Zerlina's first appearance — in a clingy, sequined mini-dress and 3-inch platform shoes, giggling with her similarly attired bridesmaids — cements Cox's vision of the show. This is not just modern America, but the slightly sordid America glorified by reality TV. And this is where the brilliance of West Bay's updated "Giovanni" first becomes evident.

In traditional productions, it's easy to regard Giovanni's designs on the bride-to-be as the primary threat to Zerlina's and Masetto's marriage. But Choi and Aguilar give us a more complex picture, one in which their characters' union is likely doomed from the start, Giovanni or no Giovanni.

Their duets (well performed, though Choi has some trouble with the higher, melismatic passages in "Batti, batti o bel Masetto") show them to be naive, shallow individuals — in love, perhaps, but incapable of sustaining a longterm relationship. More disturbingly, one has the sense that, when Zerlina begs her fiance to beat her so that she can prove her love, she might actually mean it.

This is just one example of the way in which the modern setting leads us to reevaluate our attitudes toward Da Ponte's complex characters. It is easy, in a period drama, to romanticize Giovanni as an incorrigible rake and to tell ourselves "that's just the way men behaved back then." But here, when Anna relates the details of Giovanni's attempted "seduction," it is unambiguously clear that what she's describing is an attempted rape. Suddenly, our antihero becomes much more anti. Giovanni, in 2012, is a noxiously id-driven frat boy who richly deserves the punishment that lies in store at the opera's conclusion.

Of course, setting the story in the present also presents many comic possibilities, and Cox has chosen the jokes well. For Leporello's famous "Madamina, il catalogo e questo," in which he lists Giovanni's conquests, Lau produces an iPad and scrolls through the catalog with broad finger swipes. Later, Giovanni praises Leporello's proffered feast of donuts, Chinese take-out and a bucket of chicken.

The only aspect of West Bay's update that is not wholly successful is the decision to compress all of the action into a single urban street scene. Lighting designer Robert Ted Anderson lights the sky in a way that marks the passage of time, but merging the libretto's eight locales into one makes many of the exits and entrances confusing and muddies the meaning of several lyrics. This is not to suggest that Jean-Francois Revon's unit set is not wonderful — it is. Revon has also produced a clever work-around for the cemetery scene. The Commandatore's memorial is no longer a marble statue, but an impromptu curbside shrine with candles, flowers and a lifesize portrait.

Finally, it must be noted that much of the success of this updated "Giovanni" lies with costumer Callie Floor. Her costumes tell us things about the modern characters that the 18th-century libretto cannot.

This is a superb, accessible production that will appeal both to longtime opera fans and to those who have no prior experience with the genre. Catch it while it lasts.

What: "Don Giovanni," presented by West Bay Opera

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Remaining performances are Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 26 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $20-$55 (group discounts available)

Info: Call 650-424-9999 or go to http://wbopera.org .

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